Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his our upon the stage and then is heard no more: It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing. —Macbeth, Act V, Scene V
When the international arterati descend on London at mid-month for the Frieze Art Fair, some may nip over to Trafalgar Square to catch the final hours of One & Other, Antony Gormley’s project for the Fourth Plinth. Or they may have gotten their fill of the 100-day relay, thanks to round-the-clock online coverage. Of course, they could just decide to wait for Mike Figgis’s documentary, scheduled to air on Sky Arts television later in the fall. But we get ahead of our story.
Between July 6 and Oct. 14, 2,400 souls who reside in the U.K. will have had an opportunity to claim the position atop the roughly 26-foot-high platform. The empty Fourth Plinth became a site for temporary public art in 1999, and the works installed there since have come to be regarded as a de facto rebuke to the arrogance of power as represented by Trafalgar’s permanent monuments: two generals, one king and Admiral Nelson atop his column. Each of Gormley’s chosen Ones—selected in an online application process by a “random” program which guaranteed that every corner of the U.K. would be represented—enjoys 60 minutes, a 300-percent inflation of the Warholian allotment, to do and say anything legal: ordinary Britons would have their hour upon the stage.
The concept has a distinctly British vibe. The prospect of accumulating a “group portrait” of the U.K. today evokes the Mass Observation social surveys of the late 1930s. The characterization of the enterprise as a “living monument” conjures early Gilbert & George, while the designation of an open-air public zone for unrestricted expression recalls the Speakers’ Corner of Hyde Park. And from the country that leads the world in the number and ubiquity of surveillance cameras, the activities atop the Fourth Plinth have been streaming online (www.oneandother.co.uk), allowing an infinity of Others to eyeball the One.
So far (which is to say just past its midpoint, as I write), One & Other has proven good-natured and unexceptional. Individuals sing and dance, cross-dress and undress, exercise and lounge, play music and brandish banners for pet causes. We’ve seen hula hoops and paper airplanes, balloons, boom boxes, bread sculpture and bubbles. Gormley explained to the Guardian that he expected poetry and performance, but added, “I hope we’re also going to have being rather than doing—I don’t think you have to do anything up there to be interesting.” Perhaps not. But you probably have to do more than just sleep for your hour (oh, Andy) to be featured on the website of Sky Arts television (www.skyarts.co.uk/site/plinth), where plinth “highlights” have been edited, cutely titled and archived. This might account for the determination of the fellow who danced to Lady Gaga’s Poker Face in the middle of the night, in the middle of a deserted Trafalgar Square. After all, someone somewhere was watching. And recording.
Gormley’s One & Other was commissioned by the mayor of London, and “produced” in partnership with Sky Arts, the cultural arm of Sky TV (major shareholder: Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation). The pay-per-view network has been running a “best of the plinth” program on Friday nights. Sky Arts turned to director Mike Figgis to help set up the website and position the cameras that keep the plinth and the square under surveillance. Not to be left out, the Guardian’s website announced its own low-budget goal of documenting the entire project with the help of Twitterers and contributors to Flickr.
For all the giddy air of an inclusive summer frolic, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the Fourth Plinth has been hijacked. What had been conceived as a sort of open source artwork for a specific public context has been cut, packaged and branded to suit corporate interests, promoted as a must-watch, feel-good counterpart to the sort of carpet-bombing coverage TV gives to government scandals and celebrity deaths. To be sure, the meritoriousness of previous Fourth Plinth projects was not airtight: the works couldn’t entirely escape charges of commercial motivation or cultural elitism. But the private monetization of a public art program via its transformation into a web-driven reality TV show is hardly a happy alternative.
As every good post-Mass Observation anthropologist knows, to watch is to alter what is being watched. To be knowingly watched is to not really be oneself. Looking at plinthers (as they are called) online, I was reminded of the ascetic in Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert, who resists Satan’s blandishments without realizing that he is already damned for having abandoned the modest column on which he had retreated from the world in favor of mounting a taller one from which to make his exemplary humility all the more visible. Like Simon’s loss of virtuousness, every plinther ceased to be an “ordinary” Briton when the red lights of the Sky Arts cameras went on (though it might be pushing things to float a comparison between Beelzebub and Murdoch).
With the integrity of the Fourth Plinth tarnished, it could prove salutary to see the platform occupied by what had previously been anathema: a bona fide military hero. For six months beginning in November, the plinth will support a statue of Sir Keith Rodney Park, commander of the RAF group that defended London during the Battle of Britain. The recent decision to honor Sir Keith has delayed the installation there of Yinka Shonibare’s sculpture of Nelson’s ship in a bottle, an impudent piece that will revive (too neatly?) the oppositional character of the Fourth Plinth. And the 2,400? Perhaps Michael Apted, the dedicated documentarian of Britain’s seven-year interval “ Up” series, can check in to see how the plinthers are getting on in 2016.
Then again, maybe not.
October 2009 Cover: Detail from Janine Antoni’s Inhabit (Kitchen 2), 2009, C-print, diptych, 22 by 34 inches overall. Photo courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York. Read the article here.